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The Very Best of 2016

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We’ve all said it: 2016 is a year we’d mostly like to forget. But for all that was grim and all that we lost these past months, our faith remains steadfast in the ability of art not just to say what needs to be said, but to bring us back to our humanity and our best selves. These are the voices, muses, stories, and sources of inspiration that gave us hope in 2016. We’ll carry them with us as we take on 2017, wiser and kinder and ready for the fight.

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Elissa Schappell, Tin House Editor-at-Large: I worshipped Bowie and still mourn him so it may sound strange to pick Blackstar as a bright spot. But it was. Blackstar is about being Bowie at this moment in his life– a dazzlingly intimate, elegantly subversive work of genius about grief and dying and resurrection. It is Bowie, as ever, making his art his life and his life his art and doing it right there in front of us–writing the end of his human story for us, because he knew as much as he needed to make that music we needed it to mourn him. Such an extraordinary gift. It blows my mind.

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Thomas Ross, Tin House Assistant Editor: We all have our little rituals to get us through the year. I make time once a month, six months a year, to read the latest issue of Saga, a space opera comic book published by our new neighbors in northwest Portland, Image Comics. (Can you see us, Image Comics? We’re waving!) The book relies as much on the emotional dynamism of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s characters as it does on artist Fiona Staples’s delirious, gorgeous art. This year’s arc has been especially moving, from the tragic death of an already dead ghost to the nebulous redemption of a robot villain (fueled by poignant images on the TV he has for a head), and I can’t wait to see how Vaughan and Staples will break my heart next year.

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Tony Perez, Books Editor: What a shitty year for narrative movies. While there were a handful I’d go to bat for—Green Room and The Invitation were exemplary genre exercises, Christine an excellent character study, Love & Friendship a genuinely funny, costumed surprise (and, OK, I’ve yet to see Moonlight)—little else managed to grab or hold my attention. Luckily Dana Spiotta came through to sate my cinema-starved 2016. Innocents and Others is about a competitive but complicated friendship, phone phreaking and proto-catfishing, what it means to make art, and what it means to tell stories (the opening one—an affair with an unnamed Orson Welles—is alone worth the price of admission). Usually reading about fictional art is like hearing about other people’s dreams (interesting if you can read between the lines and make some projection about their insecurities). Spiotta creates these fully formed forgeries that not only further her plots and reveal her characters, but make me worry that—after a few too many Christmas Party eggnogs—I might slip up and claim to have seen them. I had more fun reading about Meadow and Carrie’s pretend films than I did watching this year’s real ones. 

Masie Cochran, Books Editor: The best book I read this year, I began on the day after one of the worst days of the year (well, for me and 2.6 millions others).  I started reading Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta the night of November 9th. My husband put the kid to bed while I drove off looking for pizza and a good book. I sat in the cooling car in the driveway, pizza in one hand and Innocents and Others in the other. It felt good to be distracted and within only a chapter or two, transported. Reading Spiotta is always like that for me, but I found it was especially true here. Some of it was so fun to read (even a bit lowbrow) that it felt like a guilty pleasure. But then, of course, there were those wickedly smart, gut-punch sentences that left me a little woozy. 

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Cheston Knapp, Tin House Managing Editor: Since the election, I’ve been living in full-ostrich mode, trying to recall the many ups of a year now lorded over by One Colossal Downer. Among those ups was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book so horrifying and compelling that I felt like I was reading it out of the corner of my eye. I discovered and relished the essays of Robert Louis Stevenson and read with pleasure Claire Harman’s recent biography of him. Many TV series kept me rapt, The Night Of and Westworld among them. But perhaps the best discovery of the year was the photobook. A whole new genre of book! I owned a few before 2016, but nearly quadrupled my collection in these past twelve months. There were classics among the purchases, including Eggleston’s three volume version of Los Alamos and Frank’s much-mythologized The Americans. But there were newcomers, too, like Gregory Halpern’s dreamy-eerie-unsettling Zyzzyx and Tim Richmond’s muted-moving paean to the West, The Last Best Hiding Place, and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s intimate and cleareyed and heartbreaking Notion of Family. It’s been an education, seeing how these folks meet the demands of storytelling in their own way.

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Jakob Vala, Graphic Designer: If nothing else, 2016 gave us an excellent soundtrack for the revolution. Nick Cave confronted loss in his devastating elegy, Skeleton Tree. David Bowie scattered into stardust, but not before completing an incredible parting gift in the form of Blackstar. A Tribe Called Quest finally, finally released a new album (We got it from Here … Thank You 4 Your service) and the election-week premiere couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. But the albums I came back to again and again—and my younger self would be mortified to see me admit this—were Beyonce’s Lemonade and Rihanna’s ANTI. So much has been written about both and, honestly, it’s not my place to analyze them, but I know they’ve kept me afloat through this shit show of a year.

And, speaking of powerful women and destroying the patriarchy, I was introduced to Steven Universe this summer and it would be a crime to leave it off the list. It’s the best thing on television.

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Michelle Wildgen, Tin House Executive Editor: Imbolu Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is about Jende and Neni, who immigrate from Cameroon to New York in hopes of a green card, and Clark and Cindy, the wealthy pair who employs them (except the wealth comes from Clark’s work at Lehman Brothers, so it’s not as secure as it first seems). Practically, logistically, emotionally, Mbue immerses you in the lives of people who test out the dream of America against the reality, and she does it with wit and sharp-eyed energy. Behold The Dreamers may not exactly leave you feeling fulll of hope—Mbue is too smart and realistic for that. But it was a story I wanted to experience and loved reading, a meaningful one that entertained me without making me fear I was putting my hands over my ears and eyes, and that was just what I needed.

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Diane Chonette, Art Director: Westworld. After a friend’s mention, my husband and I took the plunge. It was a natural fit for us with our love of spaghetti westerns and anything set in a dystopian future. That said, I was caught off guard by how remarkable the writing, acting and cinematography were. Featuring outstanding performances by Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, and Evan Rachel Wood, the series is based on a 1973 book of the same name by Michael Crichton. Just as the events of this year have led me to fear for our not so distant future, Westworld has made me truly contemplate and fear for our more distant future. Thanks a lot, HBO.

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Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, Tin House Associate Editor: Everything you’ve heard about Moonlight is true. It’s a luminous film in every way: the shimmery, ethereal visuals of down and out Miami; the lightness of touch in its storytelling; its transcendent performances, most especially by the three iterations of its maturing main character, Chiron. You’ve heard all this, but it bears saying one more time: Go see this movie. And a film you might not’ve heard about that’s worth your time, too, for completely different reasons: Herzog’s Into the Inferno. We should’ve always known the volcano would be Herzog’s ideal subject. It is worth the price of admission just to hear Herzog deadpan his praise for lava’s indifference to the repulsive humans that scuttle above the earth’s surface. Maybe it’s just because I like doing the Herzog voice, but I’ve spent more time talking up this film this year than maybe any other aside from the unbeatable Moonlight.

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Rob Spillman, Tin House Editor: 2016 sucked. Bowie, Prince, Cohen. And he who shall not be named “winning” the election. It was, however, another great year for indie publishing. I found solace in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies; Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books), short, smart essays on the poet’s obsessions, from owls to tumbleweeds to confoundedness, chronologically written without fact-checking, then abridged at the end, memory reconsidered. I also got happily lost in Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon (Dorothy, A Publishing Project), the French novelist’s autofiction/memoir/essay examining the 1970 film Wanda, directed and staring Elia Kazan’s ex-wife, based on a real-life Pennsylvania woman’s story of abandoning her husband and children and becoming an accessory to bank robbery. Thank you, fellow indies, for keeping the faith, and for keeping it real.

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Sabrina Wise, Publicity Manager: I thought about this longer than is probably reasonable, my Bests ranging from Sallie Tisdale’s new essay collection to Michelle’s New Hampshire speech to an award-winning ugly Christmas sweater. But what genuinely buoyed me through the year were weekly installments of Mortified, the podcast from the front lines of embarrassment. Make of it what you will, but there’s something about brave adults baring their adolescent writings that just makes me feel better. Proud of us for making it, thankful for honest storytelling, reassured that if we survived our teens, we can maybe do anything.

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Lance Cleland, Director of the Tin House Workshops: Maybe it was because this was the first year I was a parent. Or this dark passage of a political season we just went through (or began). Or I have a terrible memory for names and have always failed at these sorts of lists. Whatever the case, no individual film, fiction title, or record jumps to mind as I try and type this (without Googling Best of 2016 Art). All I can think of is Poetry. Capital P. This is the art form that sustained me in 2016. It is what I had the most fun editing. It is what I read to my young son in order to make him laugh. Or stop crying. When I needed something to unlock all my rage, my grief, my desire for an answer, or a question, I turned to poetry. Jericho Brown’s “Bullet Points.” Morgan Parker in the NY Times. Tommy Pico reading in the workshop amphitheater, floating off campus to become a star. It was discovering Scarecrow by Robert Fernandez and Sara Uribe’s Antígona González and learning a new language for myself. Matthew Dickman once noted that in times of great joy or sorrow, at our weddings or our funerals, we turn to poetry. It is the vessel for all emotions. And there were so many goddamn feelings this year. And so many good poets answering their call.

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Meg Storey, Books Editor: What helped me get through 2016? This video of a seven-year-old dressed up as Wonder Woman and tearing up the dance floor. Michelle and Ja’milya for 2020. Stop the bullies.

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